“We’re not taking care of our young people today if we don’t give them strategies to cope through all the complex societal pressures they face,” said Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University who wrote the original happiness course. taught and filmed the online version for teens. “We are really letting our young people down.”
Responding to a crisis in teen mental health
Teens are in the middle of a mental health crisis — one that began years before the pandemic but has been exacerbated by it, mental health professionals say.
Therapists who treat young people say they see increased anxiety, depression, loneliness, isolation, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. There is a critical need, they say, for better resources to address the problem.
There appears to be “some decline in health risk behaviors such as substance use,” said Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association. “Those are still very concerning, of course, but we’re seeing a little bit more of an increase in what we call internalizing symptoms — some of these types of emotional stress symptoms.”
More than 37 percent of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in the year before the pandemic, 44 percent experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness; nearly 20 percent considered suicide; and 9 percent attempted suicide, the study found.
Lessons from the longest study of happiness: Robert Waldinger, director of the study and co-author of “The Good Life,” talks Thursday at 3 p.m. Eastern Time with The Post’s Well+Being editor Tara Parker-Pope. Register here.
Teenagers learn how to deal with it
“I think when people hear about lessons about happiness, they think, ‘Oh, it’s another person telling teens to be happy all the time,'” Santos said.
Santos said negative emotions can be important signals that there may be a problem.
“But we need to know the right ways to listen to and respond to them,” she said, “so that we can understand the message that things like sadness, fear or anger can send and then channel them in the right direction.” ”
The course for teens grew out of Santos’ Psychology and the Good Life course, which in 2018 turned out to be the university’s largest class with more than 1,200 students. 485 students due to the pandemic.
Also in 2018, a version of the course was released on Coursera, with over 4 million people enrolled. Santos co-authored a study that showed that people who took the online course experienced improved well-being.
Some teens enrolled in the online adult course, Santos said. But she started receiving requests from parents to develop content that focused on issues more relevant to younger students.
Dealing with happiness the wrong way
Santos filmed her lectures for her new course for a group of high school students in the summer of 2022, giving them the opportunity to participate in discussions and ask questions that students watching online may also have. Here are some of the lessons found in the course:
Rethink what happiness means: In the first part, Santos explains how the human mind lies to people about what will make them happy – a partner, money, perfect grades, access to the best colleges, social media. She says these things often won’t make teens as happy as they think and can actually distract from other things that could improve their mental well-being.
“A lot of teens try to be happy,” she said, “but sometimes they do it the wrong way or put effort into the wrong things.”
To be “differently” oriented: The course focuses on things teens can do to feel happier — for example, make social connections, maintain time advantage (a sense of free time) and be more “other-oriented” than selfish, Santos said. She tells teens that one of the most important behaviors that can make them happier is to do nice things for others – make time, donate their money or other things, or even do random acts of kindness like opening a door for someone else.
Learning self-compassion: The course for teens goes further than her course for students. It teaches teens ways to change their thought processes to feel happier.
For example, teens learn to turn off their inner critic, which can make them feel inferior and lead to self-sabotaging behaviors like procrastination, and instead think more self-compassionately.
Breaking fear cycles: Another part gives them tools to regulate their emotions, such as engaging the senses to break the cycle of fear.
“What are five things you can see right now? What are four things you can hear right now? What are three things you can feel right now?” Santos said. “Doing these exercises redirects your attention and can slow down that anxious voice in your head.”
Santos, who also hosts the Happiness Lab podcast, said, “The examples we use for adults can be a bit far from teens.” She said she developed this course to help teens feel like there is “advice and strategies that really matter in their lives right now.”
The videos will later be released on YouTube, Santos said.
Mental health professionals who work with teens say such resources are vital, especially now.
During a critical time for socialization, teens missed parties, homecoming dances and graduations because of the pandemic. “The teenage rites of passage were disrupted,” says Mary Alvord, a psychologist and co-author of “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.”
“If we can teach kids, teens and adults to make changes in things they can control, they feel empowered,” she said. “When they feel stronger, they feel more in control of their lives. And when they feel more in control of their lives, they don’t feel helpless. Then they are not so depressed.”
Sign up for the Well+Being newsletter, your source of expert advice and simple tips to help you live well every day